Sinus pressure pain RhinosinusitisThe most common sinus problem just might be one of the most nagging and difficult to manage in terms of symptoms and treatment.

A stuffy nose that seems to never go away and painful facial pressure are two of the main symptoms of a sinus infection, also known as rhinosinusitis, which can dramatically impact your quality of life. A sinus infection, which is diagnosed in 30 million adults in the United States every year, can cause you to miss school or work and leave you feeling fatigued with little energy.

This can happen no matter what type of sinus infection you may be experiencing. Types of sinus infections include:

  • Acute – lasts up to four weeks
  • Subacute – lasts four to 12 weeks
  • Chronic – lasts 12 weeks and can continue for months or even years
  • Recurrent – several diagnoses, or flareups, within a year

While rhinosinusitis is a common condition most of us have experienced, it can be tricky to treat, especially cases where symptoms persist or keep coming back.

The sinus care experts (rhinologists) at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus, Ohio, specialize in these complex sinus conditions that might require further exploration of the root cause or more advanced treatments, ranging from simple office procedures to complicated revision surgeries.

Not only is the Department of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery ranked as one of the best ear, nose and throat (ENT) programs in the country by U.S. News & World Report, we’re also a regional and national referral center for sinus care. Our sinus care specialists can collaborate with experts in allergies and asthma if those are contributing to your sinusitis.

What is a sinus infection, or rhinosinusitis?

Sometimes referred to as just sinusitis, health care providers generally prefer the term rhinosinusitis (with “rhino” meaning nose), as the condition almost always involves the nose as well as the sinuses.

Your sinuses, which are hollow spaces surrounding the nose, create mucus to drain into your nose and clean the air you breathe in. A sinus infection occurs when the sinuses become swollen and blocked. These blocked sinus cavities often fill with fluid that allows germs to grow, leading to an infection.

A sinus infection is usually accompanied by a cold or allergies, two conditions that cause inflammation in the sinus and nasal tissues. Other conditions that can lead to rhinosinusitis include:

  • Deviated septum and other nasal structure abnormalities
  • Nasal polyps
  • Enlarged adenoids
  • Nose injuries, including foreign objects stuck in the nose
  • Tooth infections

Sinus infection symptoms

Symptoms of rhinosinusitis can be nagging and they include:

  • Stuffy nose and congestion
  • Runny nose
  • Postnasal drip where mucus runs down your throat
  • Facial pain and pressure
  • Sinus headache
  • Coughing
  • Fever
  • Sore throat
  • Bad breath

How is a sinus infection diagnosed?

To diagnose rhinosinusitis, we’ll ask you about your symptoms and perform a thorough exam of your ears, nose and throat, looking for any signs of inflammation, blockage or drainage. We might use a tool called an endoscope, which is a small instrument with a light on it.

Other tests we might do to help diagnose a sinus infection include:

  • X-rays of the sinuses
  • Computed tomography (CT) scan
  • Nose cultures
  • Blood tests
Patients suffering from chronic sinus infections often worry about being “scoped” for diagnosis. Robert Pema, DO, FACOO, an otolaryngologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, assures patients that a scope is typically more easily tolerated than expected. A topical anesthetic is applied and most patients feel pressure, but not a lot of pain, and the procedure is over quickly.

Woman blowing nose with tissueSinus infection treatment

We have a number of treatment methods available to alleviate and eliminate sinus infections.

We’ll often start with over-the-counter medications and at-home remedies that can help you weather your symptoms until they subside. These include:

  • Decongestants and cold medications
  • Antihistamines
  • Pain and fever relievers
  • Nasal saline irrigation
  • Warm compresses for face and head
  • Drinking lots of fluids

If your symptoms don’t improve after a few days, we might prescribe antibiotics to help clear up the infection. We also can prescribe nasal steroids.

If your sinusitis is chronic or recurrent, we’ll look at its possible cause to determine treatments. For example, we can help manage your allergies, as they’re often responsible for sinus infections.

When the cause is structural, such as a deviated septum, we might recommend surgery to correct the issue and lessen your chances of getting sinus infections in the future.

Recurrent sinus infections despite previous surgery

Our fellowship-trained surgeons are experts in revision endoscopic sinus surgery for patients who have symptoms even after previous medical or surgical therapy. We use minimally invasive techniques, when possible, to improve symptoms related to sinus problems.

FAQs about sinusitis

Are sinus infections contagious?

It depends on what caused the sinus infection. If it was a virus, then, yes, you can pass the virus to other people. Often, we don’t know exactly what caused the sinus infection, so it’s always important to practice good hygiene while sick to prevent passing the infection to others.

How can I relieve sinus pressure and other sinus infection symptoms at home?

  • Warm compresses – Putting a warm washcloth across your nose and forehead can help ease pressure.
  • Keep your sinus cavities moist – You can do this several ways, including taking a hot bath or shower or using a vaporizer.
  • Rinse your nasal passages – Nasal lavage is a great way to clear your sinuses. Use a specially designed squeeze bottle or neti pot.
  • Drink lots of fluids
  • Rest

How long do sinus infections last?

That depends on if it’s acute sinusitis or chronic. Sinus infections can last anywhere from a few days to weeks or months.

How can I tell if I have a sinus infection, cold or allergies?

It can be very hard to distinguish rhinosinusitis from a bad cold or even seasonal allergies. Many symptoms are the same, including headache, runny nose, cough and congestion. But unlike a cold, sinusitis symptoms include painful pressure, swelling or tenderness in the cheeks and forehead. The hallmark symptom of allergies is itchy, watery eyes, which doesn’t happen with a sinus infection. Allergies often don’t cause thick nasal discharge, while a sinus infection almost always does.

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